Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2015 SciTech newsletter, which is published by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (PASTCF). R. Wesley McCoy wrote the article upon learning that the PASTCF Executive Board had granted him the Daniel W. Martin “Science as Christian Vocation” Award, which honors persons whose professional scientific, technical, or educational work is clearly part of their calling to serve God and the world.
I have been a public high school science teacher for 36 years, and I have been a Christian for longer than that. I have found that a great many people think that their faith must be somehow shielded from the effects of science, as if science had the power to spoil or destroy faith. Unlike most Christians, I am required by my career choice to navigate quite a few science and faith issues all day, every day. My faith has been of great benefit to my understanding of science, and my scientific curiosity has been an exciting way to embrace my faith.
Let me explain how this could be true. My journey in science began, as I recall, with my grandfather. He worked as an advertising salesman for a local radio station in Augusta, Georgia. When I was four years old, he ran into our house and brought us all outdoors. His excitement was directed upward, and as he pointed, we all watched Sputnik travel overhead. I was captivated, not only by his enthusiasm, but for the power and possibility of science. If we could do this, what else was now possible? The methods of science made so many things explainable.
My faith journey was beginning around the same time. We went to church in Augusta and I remember of few of my Sunday lessons there, even as a five-year-old. When my father was selected as the new manager of a B.F. Goodrich store near Atlanta, we moved and began to attend a Baptist church during the summer leading up to the 1960 presidential election.
My clearest memory is of my mother suddenly standing and taking us out of the church one day. She told me later that it was because the minister was explaining to the congregation why a Roman Catholic should never be allowed in public office. We were suddenly churchless!
It happened, though, that we had moved in right next door to a Lutheran parsonage, so, when the pastor came over soliciting ten dollars to help pay the light bill at church, my parents decided to shift over to the Lutherans. As a new six-year-old Lutheran, I had nothing but questions for all the people I met in the church. Possibly, this is how I nurtured my faith all these years.
A person with a Scotch-Irish surname is a rarity in a Lutheran church, but I did not figure that out for many years. Maybe a fish out of water can be excused for asking so many questions. I determined that questions are the best way to nourish faith, just as questions are the best way to nourish science.
When Deborah and I married at age 29, we agreed to find a church with both an exceptional educational program and a strong community outreach. We were drawn to the teaching and ministry of a Presbyterian (USA) church in our area.
Among the excellent ministers and staff, we found the Rev. Mary Beth Lawrence, now of Fredericksburg, MD, who has a gift of matching congregants with service opportunities. Mary Beth urged me to reply to the invitation from PASTCF to identify Presbyterians interested in science-faith issues to help form a substantial presence in the church community.
My career as a science teacher had led me to a critical point in my faith journey. Faced early on with students, parents, and school administrators who believed that they had a Christian duty to reject scientific explanations of the world, I had to work out an explanation for what I believed myself. Fortunately, my family held very straightforward, open attitudes toward science.
Though no one in my family had ever graduated from college, all valued education very much. My mother responded to my seventh-grade fascination with the Periodic Table with the exclamation, “I’ll bet God was just tickled that people finally figured that out!”
Though I had no particular background in theology, that idea resonated so strongly within me, it became fundamental to my Christian understanding today. Yes, I believe God really is pleased when human beings figure out how the Universe works.
We are called upon to find and confirm natural rules and processes. The questions we ask about the natural world then strengthen our understanding of and commitment to God.
I then had to construct teaching methods for helping students understand evolution and cosmology without inculcating them in my own faith. Early on my school did not nurture diversity, but fortunately diversity was thrust upon us as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist students all began to study and work with us. I used religious diversity as a theme in my classroom. I explained to all my classes that certainly there are people who have religious views that do not fit with the current scientific explanations of speciation.
I explained that sometimes we find people who dismiss the ideas of evolution and cosmology on religious grounds. I explained that my job was not to cause anyone to change their religious ideas. My job as a science teacher was to present the most comprehensive current explanations for the natural world that I could find. We must also remember that science is constantly being improved as more data are discovered. As a self-correcting process, science has been shown to be a reliable method for understanding the natural world for many centuries. I promised my students that I would explain what is known about the natural world and how we know this to be true.
Sometimes students, parents, or other teachers suggest that a creation-evolution debate is the best way to allow “all sides” to present their ideas. I think that this is a spectacularly bad idea. First of all, such a debate assumes that there are only two possible views that may be held—either God exists or science is real. This either/or format completely negates any possible benefit from such a discussion, and it prevents us from investigating some really interesting questions.
For example, is evolutionary change one of the remarkable forms of creation, wherein God has formed a world that can create more species? How exactly does God work in the world? Do we restrict the word “miracle” to refer only to those events we cannot explain? If so, what happens to the miracle when we learn how to explain it?
The other main reason for rejecting such a debate as a teaching tool is that there really are people who believe that they have the only true understanding of God, and that all others are not simply misguided but doomed. I recall a middle school teacher telling her class, “Well, I am going to have to teach evolution to you, but I am a Christian, so you all know how I feel about that.”
Actually, no, I don’t. Do all Christians believe exactly the same things? Do Christian views result in wholesale rejection of all of science? A classroom full of teenagers is fragmented enough—racially, socially, economically, and by sexual orientation.
I do not need to further alienate them all from each other and from me.
Carrie, a ninth-grader in my Biology class, was the granddaughter of a minister at a church adjoining our school campus.
It was advertised as “Bible-believing” and “Footwashing.” Carrie was very quiet when I introduced the idea of evolution on the first day of Biology class. After teaching her about research methods, data analysis, cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, mutation, ecology, and classification, I told the class that we had been studying evolution all semester. Understanding evolution, I said, puts all the concepts of biology together in one explanation. I encouraged Carrie to go home and explain what we were learning in class with her family. When she returned to class on Monday morning, I asked her how things had gone with her family. She said, “I told them that God had to get all these things here somehow, and maybe He used evolution to do it.” I only hope that Carrie’s learning represents the cognitive shift made by hundreds of other children.
Teaching students in a classroom can be a very isolating experience. When the door closes, I am the only adult, and I am responsible for the science education of 35 students at a time. Most science teachers take this responsibility very seriously and try their best to implement the policies chosen by state and local school boards.
Sometimes, however, the school board can make a decision that flies in the face of excellence in education. The Cobb County Public Schools have a history of evolution rejection. For example, in 1983 the school board passed an equal-time regulation which required Biology teachers to teach creationism for 30 minutes if they chose to teach evolution for 30 minutes. The regulation also forbade the teaching of human evolution. The equal-time policy was abandoned as unconstitutional after two years, but the prohibition on teaching human evolution continued in force until 2002. Some teachers ignored these rules, while in other schools PTSA parents volunteered to time teachers with stopwatches when teachers decided to teach evolution.
I was working for NASA during the two years the policy was in force, so I did not have to face the implications of this rule in my classroom. However, I did find that I could teach all the human evolution I wanted to if students asked me questions about it, which students invariably did.
My school board responded to an anti-evolution petition signed by more than a thousand members of a church in our community by deciding to insert a “warning sticker” into Biology textbooks. I served on the textbook committee which had just selected Miller and Levine’s Biology as the best choice for our students.
I took action, complaining to our superintendent, our science supervisor, and our school board members. I contacted the National Center for Science Education and Eugenie Scott suggested an “alternate sticker” which I presented to the school board.
As I found out more than a year later, the alternate sticker was rejected as “too weak,” meaning it did not warn students about evolution strongly enough. It was obvious that the people who wrote this sticker had limited knowledge of science.
For example, the sticker was mandated to be placed into Biology and Earth Science books, but nobody required it to be placed into Environmental Science or Genetics textbooks, even though my Genetics text contained four chapters specifically about human evolution.
Fortunately, a local parent sued the school board to have the stickers removed, and I was allowed to testify against my school district in Federal Court in Atlanta. I was able to testify that even though the sticker was a very small piece of paper, it was disproportionately damaging to our efforts at science education, devaluing the scientific process. After all, bullets and viruses are very small things, but they can have devastating effects.
I do not know all the legal machinations that took place. For example, the church petition mysteriously went missing. However, Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the stickers to be removed immediately, and they were removed. The school board signed an agreement to not place stickers in textbooks in the future. The local newspaper estimated the cost to our county taxpayers as more than $300,000, including the $70 they had to pay my substitute teacher so that I could travel to Atlanta and testify.
The real message of that story for me is that the people best situated to make a difference in clarifying science education to the public are the people who attend our churches. What we need are people in our churches who understand the value of real science and real science education.
Church members can then be the ones who call on local and national leaders to press forward with plans to improve the science education being delivered to our students. Those very church members are they who can stand as witness to the fact that we Christians are compelled by our search for the truth to support strong science education standards.
The voices missing from most public discourse about the value of science education are the people who are dedicated Christians who reject the misinformation coming from creationists and supporters of intelligent design posturing. The general public seems to assume that all religious people agree with Ken Ham and his ilk. I am a Christian. I reject the pretend science espoused by the Creation Museum. We Christians not only accept evolution, we literally embrace evolution as an explanation of the natural world as created by God.
As we continue to discover new aspects of evolutionary processes, we acknowledge that our discovery allows us to glorify God more thoroughly and completely.